Judge orders Kansas to pay nearly $2.3 million in legal fees and expenses in child welfare lawsuit

By: - August 20, 2021 3:43 pm
Laura Howard, secretary for the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services, settled with a coalition of civil rights organizations to improve opportunity for people in specialized nursing homes for the mentally ill to reside and receive improved services in community-based housing. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

A federal jduge order the state to pay more than $2.2 million in court costs of a 2018 lawsuit. DCF Secretary Laura Howard, said the agency is well on its way to meeting requirements from the settlement of that lawsuit. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas must pay nearly $2.3 million in attorney fees and expenses to the groups that filed a lawsuit regarding problems with the state’s foster care system, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Parties involved in the lawsuit reached a settlement approved by U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree in January but continued to fight over attorney fees and other expenses.

In a 58-page opinion, Crabtree wrote the plaintiffs were entitled to recover costs but not the more than $3.8 million in fees and expenses the groups were seeking.

The opinion listed inefficiencies consistent with overstaffing in the billing records as a chief reason the funds awarded were reduced.

“Those records also use vague and uninformative descriptions which complicates the court’s ability to assess the reasonableness of the hours billed,” Crabtree wrote. “In sum, plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden to show the necessity of these hours to the litigation.”

The state will pay $2,225,306.64 in fees and $72,305.15 in expenses to plaintiffs Kansas Appleseed, Lori Burns-Bucklew, Children’s Rights and the National Center for Youth Law for the lawsuit filed against the Kansas Department for Children and Families and state officials.

In January, the judge described the settlement as one that would provide “real value” to children in the Kansas foster care system, the Associated Press reported.

“The settlement is an extraordinary win for Kansas kids, promising enforceable, measurable reforms, an end to destructive placement instability, and much better access to diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues for children in the system,” said Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed. “Federal civil rights law provides for the award of plaintiffs’ attorney fees when plaintiffs prevail in asserting civil rights. As part of the settlement the parties agreed to submit the question of fees to the court; we have the court’s order and are studying the decision.”

The agreement focused on placement stability and mental health services. The deal required the state to ensure no foster care placement went over capacity, carefully track the movements of all foster children and cease hosting children in non-child-welfare housing within four years.

In a recent interview for the Kansas Reflector Podcast, DCF secretary Laura Howard, who took over the agency after the lawsuit was originally filed, said the agency is well on its way to meeting those goals on time. She said beginning Oct. 1, the agency will offer 24/7 mobile crises services for children.

“It’s very much in tune with the areas we just had to improve because it just wasn’t acceptable for kids who came into our care to experience some of what they were experiencing,” Howard said. “Not good for those kids — lifelong negative impacts.”

Mike Deines, a spokesperson for DCF, said the agency would continue to focus on improving services to youth in foster care. He said DCF is reviewing the ruling and had no further comment at this time.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.